How does 3d printing work

How does 3d printing work

Picture a robot-controlled hot glue gun that uses plastic instead of glue, and you have the basics of a 3D printer. Strands of plastic are fed into a print head, which is heated up to melt the material. The print head moves around very precisely in three dimensions and drops lines of plastic onto the print bed—the table on which it prints. The printer does this over and over, building up layers of plastic until it forms a 3D part.

It All Starts with 3D Models

How does 3d printing work

Every object printed on a 3D printer starts with a 3D model. These are usually made in a CAD program designed for working on real-world 3D models, like TinkerCAD, Fusion360, or Sketchup. This is a bit different to how 3D models might be made for movies or games, though you could certainly print out very detailed figures from traditional 3D modeling software.

One benefit of a 3D printer is that it can print nearly anything. Some models are so complex that they’re impossible to make with traditional manufacturing techniques like molding or CNC routing, and that’s where 3D printers take an obvious lead. However, they’re not just used for making fancy geometric shapes, as it’s usually much cheaper for a large factory’s R&D department to print a single model in plastic rather than rigging up the whole factory to make the actual part. This is called prototyping, making a rough draft to help test the final copy without wasting valuable time and materials.

Slicing the Model for the Print

How does 3d printing work

Since a printer doesn’t understand how to take a complex 3D mesh and turn it into a printed model, the 3D model must be decoded into information that the printer can understand. This process is called slicing since it takes scans of each layer of the model and tells the printer how it should move the print head to create each layer in turn. It’s done with the aid of a slicer, a program that handles all of this for you, like CraftWare or Astroprint.

The slicer will handle the “fill” of the model, creating a lattice structure inside a solid model to give it extra stability. This is one area where 3D printers shine—they can print very strong materials with really low densities, by strategically creating pockets of air inside the model and making it much lighter.

Another thing the slicer handles is support columns. Since the printer can’t lay down plastic on thin air, support columns must be created to allow the printer to bridge the gap. These are removable but are used in the printing process to ensure it doesn’t collapse.

Once the slicer is done, it will send the data over to the 3D printer to start the printing process.

Waiting a Long Time

Once the printer starts, you’ll notice the main problem with 3D printing today: it’s horrendously slow. While a 2D printer can print a whole book in a couple of minutes, most 3D prints will take several hours, if not days, to finish printing. And if you messed up the settings, misconfigured the slicer, or just bumped into it a bit, you could lose the whole print.

There are some faster technologies making splashes in the industry, like the Carbon M1, which uses lasers shot into a bed of liquid and pulls the print up out of it, speeding the process up significantly. But these kinds of printers are many times more complicated, much more expensive, and only work with plastic so far.

So Should I Buy a 3D Printer?

If you’re not interested in designing and printing parts, you certainly aren’t going to be replacing your boring 2D printer anytime soon.

The printers most consumers will buy usually print in plastic, though there are exotic (and expensive) printers used in the industry that can print pretty much anything. There’s even a 3D printer that can print artificial meat. The technology is moving very quickly and has significant implications across many industries. Surely someday, you’ll be able to print gourmet meals from an edible food printer, but until then it remains a hobbyist and industrial device.

Still, with prices coming down all the time, it can be a fun hobby—especially if you build anything where small plastic models are used.

What is a 3D Pen?

A 3D pen is a pen that prints in 3 dimensions.

If that’s a bit confusing to you, then don’t worry because 3D pens are relatively new and not everyone has them yet. To make it easier, think of your ordinary glue gun – with colored glue sticks and a smaller tip. But instead of gluing things together, the colored plastic that oozes out of the pen’s nozzle is used to draw figures and artwork.

It’s sort of like drawing stick figures. The only difference is that you don’t use paper to print them on, but instead just let the figures stand up on their own. The effect is like creating a sculpture in different colors by just using a simple pen!

Who’s crazy enough to invent a 3D pen?

In the beginning… there was only 3D printers. There was no 3D pen. 3D printers were bulky and expensive. Obviously, not many hobbyists and artists can afford that kind of machine. And besides, you still need a computer to design your figures before you can print them on a 3D printer. Figuring out how to design things in the computer took a ton of computer expertise. What was missing was a small, portable, and independent pen that artists can use to draw 3D figures.

Enter the fantastic triumvirate of Peter Dilworth, Maxwell Bogue, and Daniel Cowen whose bad experience with a 3D printer led to the creation of the first 3D pen. They called their invention the 3Doodler, which is basically, a glue gun for 3D drawing. They launched in 2013 and the rest is history. 3D pens are now a must have for people who are artistic.

How do 3D pens work?

The principle that makes 3D pens work is very simple. Heat is used to melt plastic. Just like the simple glue gun, plastic filament is pushed through a heating chamber where it is melted. The temperature varies depending on the materials used to make the filament. The melted filament is then pushed through the extruder nozzle. The pen user (sometimes called doodler) moves the pen to create different shapes and figures. The melted plastic cools down and solidifies quickly once outside the pen, making the shape of the extruded filament permanent.

3D pen plastics must be able to melt fast and solidify quickly when extruded. A handful of plastics meet these criteria. Among them are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), poly lactic acid (PLA), polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), polyamide (nylon), glass filled polyamide, polycarbonate (PC), and high density polyethylene(HDPE). The most popular by far are ABS and PLA plastics.

Cost Effective – ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

ABS plastic use in manufacturing is widespread because of its low cost. From Legos, to bicycle parts, ABS plastic is everywhere. 3D printing took advantage of this cheap plastic and made ABS the most popular filament for 3D pens. It’s easy to find ABS at craft stores or online.

One of the downside of using ABS is its higher melting temperature, which is pegged at 210 to 250 degree Celsius. Fortunately, technology is so advanced today that even the smallest 3D pen has no trouble reaching that temperature. However, using them at this temperature causes the plastic to emit mild fumes that may cause irritation to those who inhale the fumes. Doodlers who use ABS filament extensively should always work in well ventilated areas to avoid too much inhalation of the fumes. Alternatively, you can use a mask if you plan on using ABS for long uninterrupted periods of time.

Environment Friendly Poly Lactic Acid (PLA)

You will be surprised to know that PLA is derived from common food sources such as corn, potato, or sugar cane. Yes, it’s a kind if plastic but it is also biodegradable so will not pollute the environment. Using PLA for 3D printing instead of other plastics is better for the environment. It also has slightly lower melting point at 160 to 220 degree Celsius, and does not emit harmful fumes when heated. Instead, it emits a slightly sweet odor similar to what you get when you cook pancakes. Who wouldn’t want to smell that while working?

On the downside, 3D printing filaments made from PLA are slow to cool down once extruded from the pen’s nozzle. That is why you will need additional cooling equipment if you want to work on complex design with lots of tiny details. It is also more brittle compared to ABS.

Considering how people are turning to environmentally products, it won’t be a surprise if PLA will become the most popular 3D printing filament in the future. 3D pen filaments are cheap, so we recommend doodlers to buy both types of filament, experiment with them, and find which one suits their needs most.

Artists and hobbyists alike can find great joy in seeing how their creation takes shape right before their eyes. The invention of 3D pens has given us the opportunity to move away from flat surface and actually make our ideas take tangible shapes. 3D printers are still the best choice in printing complex designs, but for those who want show their artistic talents, 3D pens are always the best choice.

How does 3d printing work

3D printing is taking the world by storm — a bit. It’s not quite the in-home Diamond Age fantasy that was prophesied, but rapid 3D printing does currently underlie some of the incredibly efficient industrial processes we now enjoy. It’s not just about quick and easy manufacturing, but rapid prototyping allowing engineers to work through simple design issues in hours, where it could previously have taken weeks. 3D printing is working its way into hospitals and research labs, firing ranges and auto repair shops. But how does it work?

First, the generalities. All 3D printers on the market today are, at least primarily, additive. That is to say, they work by precisely depositing more and more of a building material, creating an object up out of nothing. This is as opposed to the process of sculpture, in which you shave an existing object down — there are 3D printers that can do carving on top of a recently created object, but sculpture will never be able to provide the advantages of additive manufacturing. By building objects up, usually in layers, 3D printing makes hollow objects, or those with complex internal convolutions, as simple to physically manufacture as a solid, homogeneous cube.

How does 3d printing work

3D printed M1911 pistol, broken down into parts.

There are only a few general types of additive manufacturing technology right now, though there are many slight variations on these types. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but even older technologies like extrusion deposition are likely to find a long term place in the market through sheer simplicity and lack of expense.

The grand-daddy of all 3D printing technologies is stereolithography (SLA). This is a layer-based system that uses a laser to solidify portions of a liquid medium, called a photopolymer. A metal platform is immersed in the photopolymer and held one layer’s-thickness away from the surface, usually a 10th of a millimeter or less. An ultraviolet laser traces out the first layer’s shape, creating a hardened solid wherever it touches, and then the platform descends another layer’s-thickness. A thin film of photopolymer sweeps in the cover the growing object, and the laser hardens the next layer atop it. This isn’t the most efficient way to printing, but it can use some very interesting building materials, like ceramics, for a relatively low price.

How does 3d printing workYet, probably the simplest form of 3D printing came a bit later, truly beginning the sudden storm of attention coming from the mass market: extrusion deposition. This is the easiest form of 3D printing to visualize: A robot nozzle moves about, squeezing out a plastic building material like a very, very precisely controlled hot glue gun. Some plastics are meant to harden as they cool in the air, others are mixed with a hardening agent as they’re laid down, but in any case the goal is to create one hardened layer on top of another. If the layers are thin enough, and laid down precisely enough, this can create surfaces that seem fairly smooth, like a traditionally molded plastic object.

If we want to do printing with ever-more-study and -diverse materials, things like high strength metal, we’re going to need something better than a super-advanced hot glue gun.

How does 3d printing work

Historians can use 3D printing to study ancient artifacts.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) has been the primary answer, thus-far. This approach involves releasing a tiny cloud of your building material in an aerosol form, a small puff spit out over the area we’re trying to build up. A precisely-timed laser blast then fuses these individual molecules of building material, usually metals, to the growing object. An even more advanced version of this technology called Selective Laser Melting (SLM) works in much the same way. Rather using the laser to fuse additional molecules to a growing object, SLM machines completely melt their particles of building material, essentially building from tiny speck of molten metal and potentially creating much stronger and denser final materials.

Then, there are the more specialized forms of printing. One example is carbon fiber, which can be used to print high-strength parts with low density. These sorts of specialized and composite building materials still require entry to the high end of the price spectrum — but not necessarily the extreme high-end. For well just over $5,000, an enthusiast can print in carbon fiber parts that are, in most ways, better than those printed in metal.

It’s all, finally, starting to hit the real world. Aviation companies like Airbus is now producing thousands of cheap, light-weight parts for their jets with 3D printing, while medical professionals can now quickly produce molded casts and prostheses for patients. Most design firms have at least a cheap little 3D printer sitting on a desk somewhere, so they can quickly pick up an idea and look at it from all angles.

How does 3d printing work

The first mission-ready print from NASA.

It’s a testament to the versatility of additive manufacturing that it’s being used even by enthusiasts for all sorts of interesting purposes. People are making working firearms. They’re printing functional replica musical instruments. This guy has even made a huge belt-based printer aimed at making full-scale pieces of corporate art from, basically, solder.

The efficiency of 3D printing is also perfect for the high-end science crowd. So-called bioprinting could revolutionize the growth of organs from stem cells, as new printers can build a matrix of stiff polymer laced with nutrients and the appropriate stem cells. This allows organs to grow as organs, structured three-dimensional objects, rather than homogeneous lumps of organ tissue in a petri dish.

How does 3d printing workSLS and SLM have both been used by NASA to create mission-ready parts for real launches. The goal, long term, is to be able to 3D print entire complex missions, perhaps even in space. There have been attempts to print in glue mixed with moon- or Mars-dust, potentially allowing a lander to autonomously build structures for later human colonists. There’s even an initiative called SpiderFab aimed at 3D printing large structures right in the vacuum of space. We can now start to print soft robots, and even start making objects dynamic over time.

The number of possible applications for 3D printing is truly dizzying. Like neural networks, it’s one of those technologies that can change the world without you even noticing it happen. If the vast majority of the printers remain behind the curtain, in factories and labs around the world, then their impact could only ever be felt in the steadily increasing quality of life, and a steadily decreasing cost of living.

Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

How is it possible for a printer to produce a 3D object? How does 3D printing work? These are common questions people have when they first hear about this new technology. Some don’t believe it at first and have to see it for themselves before they do.

Below, we will explain how 3D printing works, what materials are needed for 3D printing, what it’s used for, and the benefits of 3D printing.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

How does 3d printing work

A 3D printer can make everyday objects, such as ceramic cups, metal machine parts, and tools. When people first hear of this concept, they wonder how does 3D printing work, especially when more than one material is needed for an object. Printers that print documents replaced the use of a printing press, hot metal type, bottles of ink, and a drying rack for printing paper. It simplified the process and made it easier to print paper documents. A 3D printer is similar; it replaces traditional factory production lines.

Understanding how regular paper printing works will help you understand how does 3D printing work. The text and pictures on a sheet of paper you print haven’t stained the paper. They sit on top of the paper. If you examine a printed document with a microscope, you will see that this is true. Ink sits on top of the page, rather than merging with it. 3D printing was developed based on this knowledge.

To create an object with a 3D printer, you first design a 3D model of it on the computer. Then, you connect a 3D printer to the PC and select “print.” It’s as easy as that to use a 3D printer for printing objects. The machine creates an object by creating tiny little slices and gluing them together, working from bottom to top. A 3D printer can handle complex layers that result in a finished product complete with working wheels.

What Materials Are Used in 3D Printing?

How does 3d printing work

A lot of materials can be used in 3D printing. Some materials that can be used to 3D print are:

  • ABS plastic.
  • PLA.
  • Stereolithography materials.
  • Glass filled polyamide.
  • Steel.
  • Silver.
  • Titanium.
  • Polycarbonate.
  • Wax.
  • Photopolymers.
  • Ice cream.
  • Molecules.
  • Human cells.

The materials you can use in 3D printing are not a finite list. As time goes on, an increasing number of different materials can be used for 3D printing. Currently, plastic is still the most used material, but that could change as the technology evolves. SmarTech Markets Publishing estimates that 3D printing will generate $1.4 billion in plastic sales alone by 2019.

Metal is another widely used material in 3D printing. When you want to print an object with metal in it, the printer uses a direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) technique. You can make prototypes and finished industrial products through DMLS printing. The aviation industry is already making use of DMLS printing to manufacture parts it needs. Some jewelers also use DMLS printers to create jewelry.

What Is 3D Printing Used For?

How does 3d printing work

3D printing is being used to create a wide variety of items, including concept models, prototypes, dolls, jet parts, prosthetic limbs, skin, selfies. Some of the items mentioned may have made you raise your eyebrows. Human skin can really be made with 3D printing. As stated in a previous paragraph, human cells can be used as a material in 3D printing. Various human tissues can also be made through 3D printing. This is useful for those who want to fix scars, disfiguration, or burns. Scientists are trying to create functional organs through 3D printing as well.

Selfies have been taken to the next level with 3D printing. Some people are starting to print figurines of themselves. A few couples have utilized 3D printing to place figurines of themselves on their wedding cakes. You could also create a collection of figurine selfies if you wanted to.

An interesting use of 3D printing being attempted is restoring lost statues from history. A team of experts is working to recreate two Buddhist statues that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. Other items that experts are working toward being able to make with 3D printers include cars, soil, and wheelchair ramps.

What Are the Advantages of 3D Printing?

3D printing decreases how much time it takes to bring a new product to market. Inventors can now create prototypes the same day it was designed thanks to 3D printing. Traditionally, it takes months for companies to create a prototype. Ideas develop faster as a result of 3D printing, which speeds up inventions and innovations. 3D printing can also help save money on inventions. It’s cheaper to 3D print a prototype for verification of a concept than it is to create a traditional prototype.

3D printing has benefits in the medical field too. Prosthetic limbs, skin, and tissue can be manufactured with 3D printers. These items can be used to help amputees, burn victims, and other health issues. As 3D printing technology evolves, there will be even more medical uses for 3D printing. There’s a good chance, we will be able to 3D print working organs for organ transplants.

Additional advantages of 3D printing include increased creativity, faster production time, lower overhead costs, and restoration of unique objects that were broken or lost.

Summing Up

We have only touched the tip of the iceberg on what’s possible with 3D printing. It sounds like science fiction to those who don’t yet know how 3D printing works. But once they seek out the answer to their question “how does 3D printing work?”, it begins to make sense.

It’s also more exciting when you realize all of the possibilities. Have we thoroughly answered your question on how does 3D printing work? Let us know if you have any other questions in the comments below.

Filed Under: Featured Tagged With: 3d-printing

How does 3d printing work

3D Printing encompasses various different technologies like the Fused Deposition Modelling, Stereolithography, Digital Light Processing, Selective Laser Sintering, etc. but the basic principle of manufacturing parts through a layer by layer process remains the same. For explanation purpose we showcase the working of an SLA 3D Printing process.

Step 1: CAD Model

The first basic requirement of any 3D printing process is a CAD Model. It is the 3D design for the product you want to print. This model can be developed from various softwares (Catia, Fusion360, Solidworks, Creo, etc.) but the final output has to be in a machine readable format, mainly STEP, STL & OBJ but a few other formats are also used.

Step 2: Slicing

The designed model is now to be loaded into slicing software. The slicing software or Slicer, literally slices the 3D model into multiple layers depending on the specifications you provide. These slices (also called as layers) are then deposited one above the other during the actual printing process. The slicer converts the design into co-ordinates which the printer understands and the material is deposited as per the co-ordinates.

The output of this slicer is in the form of a text file with a file extension being ‘.gcode’.

Step 3: Setting up the Machine

The part can be printed through various 3D printing technologies and depending on the final application of the part, the appropriate technology & material is chosen and machine is set up. FDM printers use filaments like PLA, ABS, PC, PET-G, etc. while SLA & DLP printers use resins with usage-based properties (tough, flexible, dental etc.) & SLS uses powdered material (mostly Nylon).

Step 4: 3D Printing

The next step is to simply 3D print the model. The gcode file is loaded into the printer and the printing starts. The printer will print the object as per the print parameters set in the slicer. These settings can be modified for every single print. The printing time depends on different factors and can vary from minutes to hours to even days.

How 3D Printing Works?

3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing technology where a 3D object is created by laying down layers of materials. The working of 3D printers is similar to that of inkjet printers. However, unlike inkjet printers, 3D printers do not use ink but rather use different types of materials. These materials may include polymers, metals, ceramics, composites, concrete, bioinks, etc. The material is deposited in layers to create a physical object.

Below is the basic process and the step-by-step explanation of how a 3D printer works.

How does 3d printing workAbove: The working of SLA 3D printer

1. Laser Source: First and foremost, a laser source emits a laser beam. This laser beam helps to solidify the liquid material to form the final three-dimensional object.

2. The Elevator: The main function of this elevator is to help lay the layers. This elevator moves up and down thereby raising and lowering the platform in order to help lay the layers of object

3. Vat: The vat is a vessel like structure which contains or stores the liquid material.

4. Layered Parts: This is the actual 3D printed object that is created when the material is deposited one-by-one or in layers on top of each other

5. Material: The material (called resin in case of SLA and DLP printers) is the substance which is used to create an object. There may be different forms of resins used such as tough resin, dental resin, flexible resin, etc. Other printers like FDM & SLS use different materials. Today, a lot of different materials are used in 3D printing. Some of the materials used in 3D printing include gold, silver, ceramics, biomaterials and food.

Step 5: Post Processing

This is the final step in the 3D printing process. Once the printer stops, the print has to be removed from the bed. This process varies as per the type of technology used. In a standard FDM printer it can be easily removed with a scrapper (it is advisable to wear gloves during this step). Even after the removal of the print the part has to undergo some amount of post-processing. The amount depends on the complexity of the model and printing technology used. The most common post processing techniques include removal of support structures, cleaning off the excess resin material on the surface of the part, brushing off the excess powder in case of sintering technologies, extra smoothening with the help of sand paper polishing or sand blasting, etc.

About Manufactur3D Magazine: Manufactur3D is an online magazine on 3D printing. which publishes the latest 3D printing news, insights and analysis from all around the world. Visit our 3D Printing Education page to read more such informative articles. To stay up-to-date about the latest happenings in the 3D printing world, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn .

How does 3d printing work

Now that 3D printing — the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from digital designs — is available and affordable to individual consumers, it’s piqued a lot of interest across the tech space in the past few years.

From scale models, gifts and clothing to prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and the prospect of 3D-printed homes, the possibilities seem endless.

The concept of 3D printing is by no means new, however. Chuck Hull invented and patented stereolithography (also known as solid imaging) in the mid-1980s, when he founded 3D Systems, Inc. Since then, advances in the technology have been (and continue to be) made, including the size of the printers themselves, the materials they can use and more.

But how do 3D printers actually work? How can something that looks like our household printer or office photocopier create complex, solid objects in a matter of hours?

Designing an Idea

How does 3d printing work

It all starts with a concept. The first stage of 3D printing is laying out an original idea with digital modeling — that is, with computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software.

Whichever program you choose, you’re able to create a virtual blueprint of the object you want to print. The program then divides the object into digital cross-sections so the printer is able to build it layer by layer. The cross-sections essentially act as guides for the printer, so that the object is the exact size and shape you want. Both CAD and animation modeling software are WYSIWYG graphics editors — “what you see is what you get.”

If you’re not particularly design-inclined, you can purchase, download or request ready-made designs from sites like Shapeways, Sculpteo or Thingiverse.

Once you have a completed design, you send it to the 3D printer with the standard file extension .STL (for “stereolithography” or “Standard Tessellation Language”). STL files contain three-dimensional polygons that are sliced up so the printer can easily digest its information.

The 3D Printing Process

Now for the fun part. The first thing to note is that 3D printing is characterized as “additive” manufacturing, which means that a solid, three-dimensional object is constructed by adding material in layers. This is in contrast to regular “subtractive” manufacturing, through which an object is constructed by cutting (or “machining”) raw material into a desired shape.

After the finished design file is sent to the 3D printer, you choose a specific material. This, depending on the printer, can be rubber, plastics, paper, polyurethane-like materials, metals and more.

Printer processes vary, but the material is usually sprayed, squeezed or otherwise transferred from the printer onto a platform. One printer in particular, the Makerbot Replicator 2, has a renewable bioplastic spooled in the back of the device (almost like string). When the printer is told to print something, it pulls the bioplastic filament through a tube and into an extruder, which heats it up and deposits it through a small hole and onto the build plate.

Then, a 3D printer makes passes (much like an inkjet printer) over the platform, depositing layer on top of layer of material to create the finished product (look closely — you can see the layers). This can take several hours or days depending on the size and complexity of the object. The average 3D-printed layer is approximately 100 microns (or micrometers), which is equivalent to 0.1 millimeters. Some printers, like the Objet Connex, can even deposit layers as thin as 16 microns.

Throughout the process, the different layers are automatically fused to create a single three-dimensional object in a dots per inch (DPI) resolution.

Pushing Innovation

How does 3d printing work

It’s clear that 3D printing has the potential to transform several industries. Take the health field — medical professionals have used 3D printing to create hearing aids, custom leg braces and even a titanium jaw.

Last year, a team of researchers, engineers and dentists created the world’s first prosthetic beak for a wounded bald eagle. NASA has tested 3D printers that will let Mars-bound astronauts print what they need as they travel.

Creating 3D-printed meat could fill the human need for protein while having less of an impact on the environment. The KamerMaker (pictured above) is a 3D printer large enough to print entire rooms.

These innovations could have a profound effect on the world, but the 3D printing industry does have at least one drawback — price. Smaller printers, designed for printing toys and other small gadgets, can be as little as $1,000, but the larger, more professional models can cost anywhere from $14,900 to $59,000. And the really advanced, heavy duty models? Those can set you back more than $600,000.

Other cons include the controversies of 3D-printed guns and the threat of copyright infringement.

Nonetheless, there’s currently a huge market for 3D printing — $1.7 billion to be exact. And that number is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2015.

Could 3D printing eventually change the world and even make mass manufacturing obsolete? We’ll have to wait and see.

How does 3d printing work

NASA is getting closer to taking 3D printing to the final frontier. Along with manufacturer Made in Space, the space agency has been developing a zero-gravity printing model for the International Space Station. The finished product could produce its first part as early as next year. The 3D Print Experiment performed well during microgravity flight tests this summer, but one last battery of tests remains. The printer must go through vibration, environmental, and vacuum trials to make sure it can withstand fluctuating pressure levels. If all goes as planned, the ISS should get its first 3D printer in the fall of 2014.

The shoebox-size device is enclosed in metal with a glass window, giving astronauts a look into the printing process. Mike Snyder, Made in Space’s lead engineer and its director of R&D, says that the printer will be used to manufacture small spare parts and tools. NASA will load the plans for those parts into the printer before a SpaceX flight carries it to the ISS, while any additional layouts can be uploaded from Earth later.

Like an Earth-bound 3D printer, the device on its way to the ISS uses an additive manufacturing method to print objects in layers of plastics, metals, and other materials. However, space presents some unique challenges to 3D printing—not just any printer will function in zero gravity.

Made in Space tested several commercial models in 2011 during parabolic test flights on Zero G’s specially modified Boeing 727. The plane flies in steep ascents and then dives, providing about 20 seconds of reduced gravity at the top of each arc. Without gravity to keep the components in place, none of printers worked. Because the printing process can be thrown off if parts are so much as a fraction of a millimeter out of place, the team had to come up with an entirely new design strategy for a “no-float” printer. “Any spot where there was a little bit of motion, we had to hold down,” Snyder says. Made in Space’s engineers were able to observe and diagnose any issues on the fly and to modify the printer accordingly, but they remain tight-lipped about exactly how they address the specific problems, not wanting to reveal too much about their design.

Although Made in Space has proved that its printer can successfully produce tools and parts in zero gravity, using it in a closed atmosphere such as the ISS could prove problematic. A recent study by researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology showed that some commercially available 3D printers produce substantial emissions of heat and ultrafine particles (UFPs). Over time, exposure to these particles in unventilated environments can lead to cardiorespiratory problems, stroke, and asthma-like symptoms. Considering that each of the 3D printers tested in the IIT study produced about as many UFPs as burning one cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove, it would take a significant length of time for a harmful amount of particles to accumulate inside the space station.

“The outgassing and particulate problem with commercial 3D printers is something that Made in Space has had to deal with as well,” the company’s Grant Lowery says. “NASA has extremely high standards for health and safety conditions for any hardware or material certified for delivery and use in space. Made in Space is aware of the health requirements, and we’ve accounted for them.”

Barring any safety issues, once the printer is installed astronauts will no longer have to wait for small replacement parts to be flown up in shuttles. Noah Paul-Gin, microgravity experiment lead for Made in Space, says on the company’s website that the printer will be able to build around 30 percent of the spare parts needed on the station. This adaptation of 3D printing technology will be invaluable for making astronauts more self-sufficient, allowing humankind to reach deeper into space.

Have you ever wondered how 3D printing works, what types of 3D printing exist, or just what 3D printing is used for these days? You’ve come to the right place: We’re going to cover the basic definition of 3D printing, how different versions are used, and some of the incredible things that additive manufacturing techniques are capable of.

3D printing: Basic definition

How does 3d printing work

3D printing is a manufacturing process that creates a three dimensional object by incrementally adding material until the object is complete (this contrasts with subtractive manufacturing techniques such as carving or milling, in which an object is created by selectively removing parts from a piece of raw material). A 3D printer is simply a machine that can take a digital 3D model and turn it into a tangible 3D object via additive manufacturing. While these printers come in many forms, they all have three basic parts.

1. Digital file

The digital file instructs the printer exactly how to create the 3D object. It does this by dividing the object into layers and describing the dimensions of each layer with great accuracy. You then upload the finished digital file into the printer and watch it go to work. Many programs can create these files, including Tinkercad and Blender, which are both beginner-friendly options.

2. Printing machine

The machine has to accurately replicate the layers described in the digital file. That means that it needs enough free and clean space to construct the object, which is why 3D printers typically have a box, vat, or compartment to work in. While techniques vary, these machines usually employ nozzles and/or lasers to lay down the material and then set or cure it for each layer. As you can imagine, these machines must be calibrated very carefully: The most advanced 3D printers only operate in vacuums or at certain temperatures.

3. Printing material

The printer shapes or extrudes the printing material, which forms the printed object. While 3D printed objects are typically made of a single material, that material can be made of many different substances. One of the most popular is ABS plastic, the colorful, extruded plastic used in most home printers. However, 3D printers can also use various types of nylon and resins, some designed to be very hard and durable (all the better for testing prototypes. Other printers may use metals like steal, silver or gold. Some use ceramic materials, while others use synthetic sandstone. There are also many hybrid materials that combine plastics with other materials to add more properties.

Types of 3D printing

3D printing techniques have been around for decades. An important turning point occurred around 2009, when a consumer-friendly version of 3D printing called FDM (fused deposition modeling) became publicly available after that patent expired. That led to a boom in affordable 3D printing devices, and today when most people think of 3D printers they imagine the FDM extrusion style. However, there are many types of 3D printing used in various industries: Here are several of the most important (and if you want to buy your own 3D printer, here’s where to look).

Fusion Deposition Modeling (FDM): FDM uses a simple nozzle to extra plastic filaments, which cool down into the 3D printed shape. This is the cheapest version of 3D printing, and the kind available to consumers. Since it only needs a box, a nozzle, and a system to turn the digital data into movement, this type of printer can come in many different sizes.

Stereolithography (SLA): Technically the first type of 3D printing to be invented back in the 1980s, SLA beams a laser at a reactive liquid resin so it instantly hardens. The object is then pulled out of a vat of this liquid, layer by layer. SLA is capable of much greater detail than FDM, but the printing process is also more complex.

Jetting processes: Jetting is somewhat similar to SLA, except instead of using a vat of liquid, it sprays a jet of reactive polymer onto a base, and then flashes a UV light to harden the polymer before spraying on the next layer (some versions also use powdered material and layers of glue, or change between materials). It’s most similar to modern inkjet printer, except jetting tends to use advanced polymers with unique properties. This method of printing can be very detailed, and it’s frequently used in industrial applications.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): This type of printer starts with powdered materials that have very specific properties, such as polymides and thermoplastic elastomers. It uses a powerful laser to rapidly fuse (not melt!) these powders into the correct layers, forming a very durable object. This industrial version of 3D printing is very useful for mass-producing functional parts or prototypes.

Metal printing: Printing types like selective laser melting (SLM) and electron beam melting (EBM) use welding-like techniques to create objects. This printer moves a platform down slowly as layers of powdered metal are added and melted with incredible precision. This type of printing takes very powerful lasers and controlled environment, so it’s not usually seen outside of situational industrial manufacturing.

3D printing industries: Popular uses for 3D printing

It’s hard to find a sector that hasn’t been affected by 3D printing. Manufacturing processes around the world have adopted 3D printing techniques to help solve their problems and improve efficiency. When used in mass production, 3D printing tends to be cheaper than any other method. When used to create prototypes, it’s typically the fastest option. But that’s just the beginning! Check just a few of the incredible ways that 3D printing is currently being used.

  • Shoes: Companies like Feetz and 3D Shoes manufacture 3D-printed shoes on demand, with plenty of customization options. Bigger brands are getting into the business, too!
  • Houses: Yes, we are printing 3D houses now, too! In fact, manufacturer Apis Ctor has developed a house that can be printed and painted in 24 hours.
  • Healthcare materials: Common, disposable healthcare objectives, like sample cups, now often come from 3D printing systems. In the prosthetics world, 3D printing is used to create customized prosthetics for individual’s unique bodies and requirements. Advanced systems are even creating 3D skin grafts made out of biological ink.
  • Custom ordering: At home or work and feeling left out of the 3D printing business? Thousands of printing companies now offer 3D printing where you specify objects, materials, and place your order online.
  • Set Design: Set design and prop-making have fully embraced 3D printing as a far cheaper, faster way to create very specific props for today’s shows and theater. Think how much easier it is to create an alien environment when you can draw, program, and print a usable version of even the most outlandish or historical objects in no time at all!

You listened as futurists talked about 3D printers in every home. You watched as companies like Dremel and 3D Systems unveiled machines that promised to manufacture screwdrivers and toy cars right in your house. And you waited. Good job. Now it’s time to start printing.

How does 3d printing work

A 3D printer turns digital designs into physical objects using a variety of substances, from plastic to ceramic to something that kind of looks like wood. Before you even touch a printer, you’ll need a design—a precise computer-generated model that will tell the printer what to make. You can use one of the millions of free design files online—vacuum-hose adapters, water-bottle holders for your bike, and much, much more—or your own imagination, which will require you or someone else to create an object using computer-aided design, or CAD, software. Designs must then go through separate “slicing” software. Slicers break the object down into flat, two-dimensional layers that will stack up to create it, like slices in a loaf of bread. The software even determines the best path for the printer to take as it builds each layer. Then the printer simply starts layering slices of whatever material you’re printing with (more about that in a moment).

Should You Buy One of These Things?

If you’re interested in learning every step in the process of 3D printing, go for it. Just want 3D prints? You’re better off finding friends with 3D printers. In the past five years machines have only gotten cheaper and easier to use, but an affordable printer that’s ready to go from the box isn’t quite a reality. Even with so many consumer-grade printers on the market, the sweet spot of price, quality, and reliability remains elusive.

Types of Consumer Printers

Whether you intend to buy a 3D printer for your home or use one in a public space (see “Find a Printer”), there are two kinds you’re likely to encounter.

How does 3d printing work

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF): FFF, also known as fused deposition modeling (FDM), is the most common method of consumer 3D printing. FFF machines build in successive layers of plastic filament. They work slowly and the layer-to-layer bonding can introduce weak points and a jagged texture, but competition and cheap printing materials mean printers can cost less than $1,000.

Stereolithography (SLA): SLA machines offer greater accuracy and flexibility. They shine ultraviolet lasers into a vat of light-activated resin, hardening it into shape layer by layer. SLA achieves a resolution, or layer thickness, of 0.05 mm, allowing for smoother, more intricate designs. But that quality comes with a larger price tag: typically $3,000 and up.

Step 1. Select a Design

If you know how to use CAD software, great. If not, that won’t stop you. Here’s where to turn at every stage of the learning curve.

How does 3d printing work

You aren’t sure where to start.

If this is one of your first print jobs, the easiest option is to use someone else’s work. Sites like Thingiverse, Yeggi, STL Finder, and GrabCAD provide millions of free digital designs for a variety of objects including ice scrapers, side tables, and even working watches. Many files allow you to customize a design to the measurement, resolution, or weight you need.

You want to customize, with assistance.

If you can’t find an existing design online and you don’t know CAD, you’ll need to hire a designer. Costs are based on complexity and time, but expect to pay $75 to $150 an hour for a customized design file. Find freelance 3D designers at your local MakerSpace or on sites like Shapeways, PeoplePerHour, or Cad Crowd that list rates, specialties, and services.

You’re ready to try it yourself.

Several 3D-printing apps allow you to build products of your own without having to know CAD. Apps typically have a narrow focus, such as building smartphone cases or transforming kids’ doodles into 3D figurines, but are fast and easy to use. When you’re done, simply download the design file generated by the app, upload it to the printer, and get printing.

Step 2. Choose Your Materials

The first 3D printers produced only plastic parts. Today’s machines can handle a growing variety of materials.

If you want an object that is strong:

Consider metals like titanium or steel. If you’re ordering prints from a third-party service, commercial-grade Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printers fuse pure metal powders into designs to create some of the toughest objects you can print—NASA and SpaceX have used this technique for rocket-engine parts. If you’re using an FFF printer, you’ll want plastic—either ABS or nylon. Both are tough and flexible enough for functional parts like gears and integral hinges.

If you want an object that can handle heat:

Ceramics can withstand temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Using SLS machines, preceramic polymers are printed into a design and then traditionally fired, converting the material into a ceramic. The new material can handle the kind of heat that melts metal, making it ideal for jet engines, hypersonic vehicles, or your morning joe.

How does 3d printing work

If you want an object that captures details:

Resin’s smooth surface and ability to show details, especially when treated with high-powered SLA lasers, make it perfect for prototypes and models.

If you want an object that looks like the real thing:

3D printing won’t yet replace carpentry or masonry, but it’s getting closer. Plastic filament embedded with wood shavings or chalk produces a final product that resembles wood or concrete-like stone. Sand down the layers’ edges and no one will know.

Step 3. Find a Printer (If You’re Not Buying Your Own)

Go to the library. Hundreds of public and college libraries offer free access to 3D printers, charging by materials used.

Go to the store. Select UPS stores offer FFF printing services. Check 3D Hubs or Makexyz for a listing of local printers.

Go online. For access to exotic materials and high-end printers, outsource. Companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo allow you to upload a design, select materials, then receive printed objects in the mail.

• Learning 3D-modeling design can get crazy quickly. For a simple introduction to CAD software, check out Tinkercad, a free site that teaches fundamentals such as placing, adjusting, and combining objects.

• MakerSpace and TechShop, two retail maker spaces, are great places to learn the printing process. Many locations offer classes to nonmembers or can connect you to a 3D-printing expert. For unlimited or unsupervised access, consider becoming a member.

Special thanks to Chris Templeman of Happy Workhorse, Ethan Dicks of IDEA Foundry, Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technology University, and Shapeways and 3D Hubs.